Discernment, silence and corporate governance


What can board members learn from the Quaker Business Method?

As a charity lawyer and trustee based in Birmingham, I am reminded daily of how Quakers have helped shape the city. It is less well known that the Society of Friends' book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice, is a great source of tips for board members. Among other things, it describes the Quaker business method, a suite of tools to support decision making. You may have heard of one of those tools - the use of silence at the start and end of Quaker meetings to help those involved ‘come with heart and mind prepared’ for the work of the meeting, and leave prepared for what follows. I have highlighted below some other practices which are worth considering, whatever the nature of your business.

The clerk of a Quaker meeting has a role which resembles that of a Chair – including agenda preparation, minute drafting, and ensuring the efficient conduct of business - but there are interesting differences of emphasis.

  • Humility: the clerk is the servant of the meeting, not leading the meeting but helping provide a clear structure and capture resulting decisions.
  • Contributions and 'air-time': Each person is generally expected to speak only once to each agenda item and only then to make a point not yet made.
  • Navigating conflicting views: Quakers do not vote in meetings because they 'believe this would emphasise the divisions between differing views and inhibit the process of seeking [the right way forward]'. This removes a tool which many Chairs find reassuring - the option of calling a vote - but Chairs should, in any event, be seeking to make decisions by consensus where possible'
  • Contemporaneous minutes: the minutes are written and agreed as decisions are made in the meeting. This avoids the chore of writing or reviewing minutes after a meeting which many Chairs may recognise but it can place considerable responsibility on the clerk who must capture the result of the meeting in real time and produce a minute that all those present can unite behind.
  • Discernment: great emphasis is placed on the role of the clerk in 'discerning' the sense of the meeting. This is more than just wrangling a compromise or consensus. It is ‘a process of waiting and deep listening that filters out distractions and ‘noise’ to reach clarity’.

You may already apply some or all of these methods to create a culture where silence and reflection are part of your meetings. If some are less familiar to you, why not find out more about Quaker business methods and how a governance tool kit used for more than 350 years could work for you?

Shivaji Shiva is a Charities Partner at award-winning law firm VWV. He is also a serial charity trustee / non-executive board member, and an occasional transport campaigner, currently promoting Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in the West Midlands. Shivaji can be contacted on 0121 227 3724 or at sshiva@vwv.co.uk.